About 18 months ago Jane Cooper told me about a then-secret project to collect the fleece of Boreray sheep from all over the UK and produce yarns with it. I was asked whether I would be willing to design a shawl using the lace weight, which was to be a blend of Soay and Boreray fibre, and to be called the St Kilda lace weight.
Boreray is one of the islands of the St Kilda group. St Kilda itself was inhabited until the 1930s, and still is home to two rare breeds of sheep, the Soay and the Boreray. Both are old breeds, dual coated, with a fine, soft undercoat and longer, thicker guard hairs. And as with all ancient breeds, the fineness of the fleece varies hugely within and between fleeces.
St Kilda has long held the imagination. The jagged rocks rise straight out of the sea, looking like the story book dragon’s lair! (I have seen them from the deck of a ship, but not landed.)
The wonder is that people ever lived there, so far from any other land. But there is evidence of habitation going back to the Iron Age at least. The population seems to have thrived until the early Nineteenth Century, when well-meaning, but inept, folk from the mainland UK came to ‘educate’ the islanders. The ‘progressive’ ideas they brought were not only useless on the island, they made the islanders’ lives worse. For example, the islanders had always built their houses as right angles to the street, giving shelter to the door. But the new, so-called better, way was to build them with the front door to the street. This meant the houses were colder and more smoky, with all the ill health that brought…
The women of St Kilda used the fleece of the local sheep for knitting and weaving. The coarser fibres were used to spin yarn for weaving into blankets and shawls.
The softer fibres were spun into yarn for knitting underwear. (Note that none of the women or children wore shoes, and therefore, no socks. Men would have worn course socks in their sea boots.) Most other clothing was bartered for, in return for fish, sea-birds or their eggs.
There are pictures of St Kilda women using both a standard sloping bed wheel, and also a cross between a great wheel and a spindle. I suspect some inventive husband or son built it to make spinning quicker and easier for their womenfolk.
All St Kilda women wore shawls, often woven into plaids. I took this as the starting point for my design, and tried to evoke the over-and-under of the weave in the pattern of holes. I wanted something which could be used with different yarns, too, and so top-down, starting in the centre back, seemed the best idea. This could be fitted well with the ‘woven’ look – and added bonus!
We had no idea how far the yarn would go! It turned out that one ball made a good sized neckerchief, two a good sized shawl, and three a nice shawl with a border. I wanted a scarf in the pattern too, for folk who didn’t wear shawls. Again, there are several variations with the photographed sample being knitted up by Jane.
The first batch of yarn sold out very quickly.
However, the seed had been sewn, the breeders of Boreray contacted by Jane had realised there was a market for their fleece, and Sue Blacker of Blacker Yarns, was able to acquire more Boreray to make another batch. This time some Shetland was also added to the mix, and it looks as if this will become a regular, though limited line.
You can buy the pattern from Sue here.